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Smooth Operator

Political neophyte Lee P. Brown announced his mayoral candidacy in June 1997 with a daylong string of campaign appearances symbolizing his slogan, "The Mayor for All Houstonians." For his last stop that evening, Brown's entourage headed west toward Sandalwood, a comfortable, white and affluent subdivision in a bend of Memorial Drive. Signs and balloons bearing the former police chief's jarring gold and black campaign colors pointed the way along Hickory Ridge to his waiting hosts, Jack and Karen Linville.

Outwardly, it was an unlikely partnership between the candidate and Jack Linville, 53, his treasurer for the campaign.

Since his arrival in Houston in the mid-'70s, the thin, long-faced Linville had been associated with a westside power circle that included, among other notables, patrician Port Commission chair Ned Holmes, former mayor Bob Lanier, godfatherlike Walter Mischer Sr., Park 10 land-shark David Wolff and the late, disgraced commissioner Bob Eckels. In his climb into the circles of power in Houston, Linville has assiduously cultivated private and public men who could make things happen for a succession of business interests he first toiled for as an employee and then joined as an equal. He built a company, Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, into a rapidly growing national architecture and engineering firm.

Linville voted Republican in the 1994 GOP primary. That hardly made him a prospective soul mate for Brown, who had been President Clinton's drug czar. Linville didn't think much of the mayoral skills of Kathy Whitmire, the woman who first brought Brown to town.

To an outsider, he might have seemed a much more logical supporter for Brown opponent Rob Mosbacher, the Republican who received the endorsements -- and dollars -- of most major architecture and construction figures.

But on that night in 1997, Linville was no question mark in the minds of the key players of the Brown brain trust. They had a much better understanding of Linville's motivations. He was there, according to several sources, at the behest of County Commissioner El Franco Lee, one of the architects of Brown's run for mayor and a longtime Linville friend.

"He's got a pretty strong social conscience," says Lee, stressing the idealistic side of Linville. "He was raised on the poor side of town."

However, those humble roots were in the distant past. His political associations have paid off handsomely for him -- as well as for Lee. Since 1996 Linville's PGAL firm has received almost $10 million for a host of county contracts. Last month PGAL was part of the team selected for the new civil courthouse project, to be funded by $119 million in voter-approved bonds.

Lee and other members of Commissioners Court award county contracts to Linville's PGAL -- and Brown and City Council award contracts to both Linville and Lee. Since Brown has been mayor, PGAL has snared nearly $20 million in new work. And Commissioner Lee is majority owner of the engineering firm that has hauled in almost $1.5 million as the minority subcontractor chosen by Linville's PGAL.

The Lee-Linville connection may raise ethical questions, but it's legal, and they defend it as a sound business practice. While the setup draws protests from PGAL competitors, the deals highlight Linville's pragmatic side, which draws praise from longtime associate and Houston Sports Authority chair Billy Burge.

"He knows you've got to be on the right political side of the fence to win the day in terms of how political chits stack up," says Burge. "He knows how to play that and team up with the politically correct side of a deal."

Even if Linville had been inclined to support Mosbacher, there wasn't much room at the top in that heavily Republican, massively financed campaign. Linville competitor Jim Royer -- president and CEO of the local engineering heavyweight Turner, Collie & Braden -- already had the inside track with Rob.

"When you think about it," says one Brown campaign source, "Linville really didn't have anyplace to go, unless he wanted to be stupid and back someone like Helen Huey or Gracie Saenz." Those former Houston city councilmembers were also-rans in the race.

The same source describes Linville as "petrified" about the possibility that Mosbacher might have won, for his pro-Brown firm might have found itself frozen out of City Hall. As Linville himself acknowledges, "every partner in my firm said, 'You're crazy to do this.' "

When business leaders explain their motivation for contributing thousands of dollars to a winning candidate, almost invariably their line is that they are supporting good government, not trying to buy business. In the case of professional services contracts, where hard bids are replaced by highly subjective selection criteria, influence with elected leaders can be the difference between a winner and an also-ran on a short list.

 

Says one City Hall operative who knows the former college basketball player well, "Jack wants every rebound." Political connections put firms like his under the basket and in position to snatch the ball.

For Jack Linville, politics and business are two sides of the same urban coin and should not be confused with ideology or party. It is the interaction of elected officials, government agencies and business interests that reshape the face of the city and generate the projects that feed his industry.

Linville admits that his firm is regarded "as the anti-Christ" among architect circles for its aggressive pursuit of deals.

"He is neck-deep in politics at both the county and city level," snipes an architect for a rival firm, who then cites an interesting chain of contract connections between PGAL and a local politician's engineering firm to prove his point.

The nearly $10 million paid by the county to Linville's PGAL firm was gained with the support of Lee and westside Commissioner Steve Radack, another good friend of Linville's.

His almost $20 million in work received under the Brown administration has come in new contracts or contract extensions on wastewater and aviation-related work. Linville claims PGAL did equally well or better under Brown predecessor Lanier. The firm's public contracts with local governments are only a fraction of its burgeoning national workload, nearly $30 million this year, with some 60 percent of that in the private sector. Still, PGAL's business with local government isn't exactly chump change.

What's most interesting, PGAL won its last string of contracts with the city by using minority subcontractor Espa Corp. Commissioner Lee has a 60 percent ownership of that engineering firm.

In his official capacity, Lee has voted with the other commissioners for a series of major awards to PGAL in the last two years, including the civil courthouse contract. The work awarded to Espa as a team member with PGAL in the city deals totals nearly $1.5 million.

Lee and Linville say PGAL clearly had the best proposal on the courthouse and that any pairing of their firms on non-county contracts has no bearing on who gets county work.

Linville denies that his political activities generate favorable treatment for PGAL but agrees that it's important that officials know a company and its principals. Mayor Brown knows Linville as a generous contributor and campaign finance chairman, but also as the employer of his daughter Jenna Ford, a young architect at PGAL. Linville says she was recruited and hired before anyone at the firm was aware of her relationship to the mayor.

"We were well into that process when we found out that she was also the mayor's daughter," says Linville. "Has neither hurt nor helped her career. And I don't think it has impacted anything at City Hall."

No one claims that PGAL or Espa doesn't do good work. But the accusation that PGAL plays politics to win contracts is repeated so often that it has become a mantra in the tightly knit Houston engineering community. Professional jealousy undoubtedly accounts for some of the backbiting, but the cold, hard contract figures at the county and the city fuel the suspicions that more than Jack's winning personality and his firm's capabilities snares PGAL contracts.

Likewise, it's hard to believe that Commissioner Lee and his staff do not have some awareness that hundreds of thousands of dollars of business have been generated for Espa thanks to inclusion in PGAL's city contracts.

A political observer who knows Linville says he's simply operating by the unwritten rules of county government.

"That's the kind of stuff he's perfectly willing to do. It's partly about Jack, but mostly about El Franco and the way commissioners operate. Jack's just working in a system that is required to do business in the county."

The cozy tango between elected officials and business figures is hardly a new step, but at the moment Linville has some of the fastest feet on the Houston dance floor.

By all accounts, Roy Jack Linville Jr. is a man with a built-in thermostat set on 70 degrees. He doesn't rattle easily, according to cohorts. He doesn't bristle at hostile questions. He rarely raises his voice at all, at least in public. He excels at putting folk at ease.

"He's not the kind of guy who feels he has to kill the other side in order to win," explains former partner Ned Holmes. "I've not ever seen him vindictive or brutal in the process, and there are people who are like that."

After years of cutting other people's deals for them behind the scenes and providing an affable, articulate public face for employers, Linville is now squirming under unexpected and unwanted rays of media attention.

 

Just three weeks ago Linville found his name bandied about before City Council and in the Houston Chronicle in a complaint to the City Ethics Committee. He contributed $5,000 to Brown 12 days after Council awarded a $1.5 million contract to PGAL, and the city prohibits contractors from contributing within 30 days of the Council vote on their contract.

Brown fund-raiser Sue Walden had the money returned to Linville, so the ethics panel dismissed the complaint.

"I don't make a lot of money," explains Linville, with just a trace of exasperation as he faces a reporter across a conference table in his firm's tenth-floor offices in the Marathon Oil tower on San Felipe west of the Galleria. "Built a good firm, but I don't make a lot of money like some of the other guys you deal with," mutters Linville. "Don't have a whole lot of influence with anybody, so I can't see what the interest is."

By "some of the other guys" he means former mayor Lanier, Burge, broker of skyscrapers and chair of the sports authority, and Linville's former partner, Holmes -- all people with the financial bite to match their bark. If any of those guys confessed to being a thin-walleted nobody, it would come off like a Comedy Central routine.

Because of his unorthodox climb from a small-town upbringing into the civic pantheon of power brokers, Linville's protestations are almost, but not quite, convincing.

"In no way does it help me to get this done," muses Linville, about the prospect of receiving more ink about his political activities. "If you write a very positive article and say nothing but glowing things about me, it hurts because my competitors will say, 'Look at that glory hog.' If you write a very negative article, it'll make a lot more people happy, but it won't do me any good."

Still, just as Linville couldn't pass up the chance to make a high-profile mark on Brown's campaign, he can't pass up the opportunity to be profiled in the media as a municipal mover and shaker, a role to which he clearly aspires.

"If you look at his evolution to where he is today," says Burge, "he's really bounced around from public sector to private sector. He's very much an opportunist, a salesman. If you say the grass is greener somewhere else, Jack will be over there sniffing around."

Bounced around is an understatement for the path Jack Linville followed from the 8,000-soul hamlet of Elizabethton in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. The eldest of two sons of mom-and-pop hardware store owners, Linville was a scholarship basketball player warming the bench at East Tennessee State in the late '60s. A sympathetic athletic department publicist tactfully suggested he might better employ his talents as a sportswriter at the Johnson City Press Chronicle.

When the paper's longtime political writer died unexpectedly, the 21-year-old Linville fast-talked his way into covering politics, an endeavor not totally dissimilar from organized sports.

"I went to the managing editor and said, 'Send me in, Coach, I know politics,' recalls Linville. "The guy said 'You're crazy. You're too young to be even a sportswriter.' "

Linville persisted. He got the assignment almost by default.

"Most of the reporters there were very, very laid-back, lazy, weren't looking for more assignments; they were looking for less. Anybody who wanted to show some aggression and do something could pretty well bully their way into the opportunity."

While covering the Tennessee Legislature and the burgeoning debate over land use, Linville grew close to Johnson City's city manager, a Georgia Tech grad who suggested he pursue city management as a career.

Linville enrolled in graduate school and landed a part-time job with the City of Atlanta Planning Department. That and his journalism background opened the door to an assistant editorship at Nation's Cities, a magazine sponsored by the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"The last really fun job I had," Linville says. Married by that time, with a young son, Linville followed a routine that alternated between one month on the road writing about urban programs and one month putting out the magazine while the editor traveled. After publishing a scholarly tome on city planning and management, Linville followed his penchant for research to the American Institute of Planners.

After several years and another book, The Political Environment -- an Ecosystems Approach to Urban Planning ("sleep-inducing," says Linville), he was recruited for the newly formed Rice Center for Urban Design in Houston.

That job provided a bridge from academia and government to the hardball world of west Houston deal-making by monied developers who became his patrons. They included John Turner of Friendswood Development, Howard Horne, the first chairman of Metro, and Bob Braden of Turner, Collie & Braden. To his discomfort, Linville found himself pushed into a role selling the center rather than conducting research.

 

"At that point I wanted to write the books that saved our cities," he says with a chuckle. "When I got here, immediately I was spending all my time marketing to bring in work. It was something I was pretty good at, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. I was willing to use that to make enough money to support research, which I thought was a little deeper, a little more intellectually challenging, and using my mind in a different way. [But] I got more and more into the marketing side without ever meaning to."

Linville characterizes Rice Center as a success. Several university sources say the school bureaucracy viewed the alliance as a developer think tank and expensive sideshow that did not pull its weight in grants. In any case, after several years the center dissolved and Linville launched the West Houston Association, whose members included many of the forces behind Rice Center. The group was a confederation of big landowners pushing their westside development agenda on government officials and agencies.

According to Burge, "Infrastructure would have never taken place if [Linville] had not gone out there with major landowners and created the association, created an environment where Exxon and Shell could come out there with big headquarters."

That infrastructure was inevitable, but it just might not have come in ways and on a schedule tailored to maximize the value of the developers' properties.

Two of Linville's signature efforts involved coordinating several municipal utility districts in building the Turkey Creek wastewater plant, and getting a bridge built across Buffalo Bayou at Eldridge Parkway.

"He brought to the enterprise some really good interpersonal skills and putting people and groups together," recalls Holmes, whose extensive holdings on Eldridge shot up in value as a result.

The trick, recalls Linville, was to get the developers to offer enough carrots to get government to build a bridge that no one else was demanding.

"We organized all of the major corporations and developers to contribute to a massive project with the state and the county." By that time Linville's smooth-operator persona was well practiced.

"He's extremely easy to get along with -- that's one of his gifts," Holmes says. "He has the ability to zero in on individuals he's dealing with and make them feel comfortable. He's very quick on his feet."

Linville found he had an affinity with one of the most controversial and powerful county officials of the era, Commissioner Bob Eckels, who would later be prosecuted and driven from office by District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr.

"I loved him," says Linville of Eckels. "To me, he was the epitome of a guy who knew how to get things done, to cut through the red tape. He could bring to bear flood control, state highway department and the county, and extract money from the private sector to get their contributions in."

Linville is quick to add that he never witnessed Eckels doing anything illegal.

"I saw him as one of the few political leaders that could truly make the system work. In retrospect, I think the same talents that were letting him do that were making him feel he was bulletproof over on this other side."

Commissioner Lee also draws Linville's praise. "Of all the elected officials I've ever worked with, I think he's as good as Bob Eckels at getting things done. And it seems to me he's the most straight arrow up there."

Of course, when an official can give you everything, who's going to be looking too hard for a more unsavory side?

By the early '80s the Houston land speculation market was booming and Linville was associating with a big-money crowd. But he didn't have much of the green stuff himself.

That soon changed when Linville left the West Houston Association to join Ned Holmes in an expanded land company, Parkway Investments.

"He wasn't long on money," confirms Holmes, "but he was long on ideas and creativity. Part of his skill set is being able to identify with people and communicate with them, and that includes political people as well as businesspeople. I don't know anybody that he had a bad relationship with in elective office."

Linville received 20 percent from the deals he brought to Parkway. Holmes recalls teasing him about his problems with figures. "He's not a numbers guy, he's a concept guy. But he's good at it -- he's real good at it."

 

The intoxicating land rush that was under way in the early '80s started souring in the mid-'80s. Oil prices crested and collapsed, and the county finally felt the national recession's bite. Linville picked up on the signals sooner than Holmes and began casting about for a way out of Parkway Investments with his finances intact.

"I saw the problems deeper than Ned did," Linville says. "I saw the number of lots and office buildings and the absorption rates, and said, 'This is not a short blip. This is a much deeper deal.' "

The solution was to package all of Parkway's assets and sell them to European Ferries, a London-based shipping firm that had been a co-investor with Parkway. Holmes and Linville became employees of a wholly owned subsidiary of the European company. Linville negotiated a buyout of his interests in the investments, a deal he pegs at six figures.

Linville remembers that European Ferries was soon taken over by the larger Peninsula & Orient, of which Parkway then became a wholly owned subsidiary. It's a relationship with the shipping industry that Holmes, the chair of the Port of Houston Authority, does not go out of his way to publicize.

Linville says he was looking for a cheap ticket to the players' table. "Something you could get into with a rather limited amount of cash. Not like buying the controlling interest of a big manufacturing company or a real estate company. Take a lot more resources than what I had."

He became senior vice president of the Houston architecture firm of Bernard Johnson, a veteran near retirement age without a clear successor. Linville quickly moved up to president, expecting to buy his way into the top spot shortly and go national with the firm.

He teamed with westside contact Walter Mischer, in a plan to acquire a poorly performing Austin architecture firm for Johnson's company. Johnson backed out at the last minute, leaving Linville with egg on his face.

"It was clear I didn't have the authority to do the things I thought I did. Had to go back to Mr. Mischer, who was and still is a very important guy in this town to me, and say, 'Oh, by the way, we're reneging on this deal that we both thought we'd negotiated.' "

Undeterred, Linville tried to expand the Johnson firm with a simple merger with the smaller Houston architecture firm of Pierce, Goodwin & Alexander.

Johnson again balked. Linville resigned and took an executive position with PGA, his former merger target.

"PGA's partners had gotten to the age where they wanted to buy out and go to Florida and hit a bucket of balls," says Burge. "Jack's timing was perfect -- like buying a name brand where the people who made it are on the way out. It gave him an opportunity to have a place at the table based on their reputation over the last 30 to 40 years."

The 50-employee PGA was hardly ready to take on giant national firms for big projects. There was no engineering component to win construction management contracts and no solid public sector experience. Linville cherry-picked national up-and-coming design stars and merged with other firms to add an engineering base.

He recruited Ken Brown, a member of a small Washington, D.C., firm who had drawn acclaim for his low-cost conversion of an old air hangar into an ingeniously designed airport terminal.

A firm in Tampa yielded an expert in runway and terminal engineering to complement PGA's experience in design for Bush Intercontinental. From that same firm came jail design wizard Dan Harnley, who tapped into the growing Texas prison market.

PGAL expanded to more than 200 employees. Some of its projects won national awards, including a just completed federal courthouse in Brownsville. In a decade, Linville created a lean, tough competitor designed to go after big public projects. His team had the technical genius as well as a political minister -- Linville himself.

In the late '80s Linville regularly hosted the off-election-year fund-raiser for then-mayor Kathy Whitmire, even though he disagreed with her push to build a monorail system and eventually resigned his county-appointed post as a Metro board member.

A Whitmire staffer remembers the Linville of the time as unusually aggressive in pushing for city contracts.

"I found it a little sleazy," says this source. "I remember one time where he kept asking, 'What do we need to do to work out getting a recommendation on this contract?' He tried to ask me for five minutes how to get at it." Afterward, says the source, "I felt crummy. I just wanted to go wash my hands."

 

Linville didn't think much of the Whitmire crowd, either.

"I think Kathy saw the business community as the problem and the enemyŠ.I was disappointed in Kathy not building a more inclusive government. It might have been inclusive to people who had been disenfranchised before, but it was exclusive to people that could really help her make things happen and move the city along."

Linville was much more compatible with his old West Houston Association buddy Bob Lanier. When that term-limited mayor all but endorsed Lee Brown as his successor, El Franco Lee and others persuaded Linville to come on board. For someone who has done well on the business side under Brown, he seems somewhat ambivalent about his man's performance in office.

"I think the jury's still out," says Linville of the Brown mayorship. "As much as I love Lee Brown as a person, I don't think he's reaching out to build a constituency the same way Lanier did."

Linville also denies that his firm has done appreciably better under Brown than Lanier.

"We have less work with the city today than before Brown," he insists. "It has not been helpful for my business, and I think now it has hurt my business."

State and county rules guard against potential conflicts of interest, although none of them prohibit the kind of financial arrangement that Linville and Commissioner Lee have. A county official's company can receive business from another company that gets contracts from the county. As questionable as the PGAL-Espa connection may seem to some, both Linville and Lee insist it does not have any impact on PGAL's success in winning county business.

According to Linville, his political relationships with officials are greatly overrated, because most of the time elected officials cannot directly intervene in the procedures for selecting professional services contracts. That job is handled by county staff committees using specific criteria.

The secret to winning jobs, Linville says, is to find out what the selection committee wants and "present a better case on their hot buttons than the next firm that's also qualified.

"I think you have to have enough access [to politicians] that they've heard of you, but I don't think they pick between acceptable local firms."

Commissioner Lee makes the same claim. "It is absolutely absurd to negate a team of people who make decisions at the county and make recommendations to us. In the competitive process the cream rises to the top." Lee writes off criticism as sour grapes from people whose proposals were found wanting.

"Those critics are discounting the competitive selection process in both bodies by implying that. When they win, they then say, 'Oh, the process works.' "

Lee was asked why he doesn't simply abstain from voting on contracts with companies who use his own firm as a minority subcontractor.

"The ethics rule doesn't require me, who is a partial owner of a firm and a stockholder, to recuse myself from a vote that's totally unrelated to another firm that's owned by another group of people and corporation," answers the commissioner. "That's a real wide stretch."

Linville says so many firms use Espa as a subcontractor that if Lee recused himself, "he couldn't vote on any projects for anything in the county."

In his county financial disclosure statement, Lee listed his interest in Espa, as well as the fact that his son is employed there. His daughter is also employed as office manager for the commissioner's nonprofit Street Olympics foundation. Lee listed no business relationships between Espa and PGAL or any other firms on the disclosure report.

Lee suggested that the only reason his firm is catching flak is its ethnic makeup rather than its ownership by an elected official.

"Espa was in existence for 18 years with no complaints," says Lee. "The only time there have [been] complaints is when in its evolution the firm's ownership became majority minority." Lee and partner Murdock Smith joined the firm as employees but eventually bought control.

"Takes longer to tell that story than for someone just to take a swipe at your ass," says the commissioner sarcastically.

Likewise, Linville suspects that the city ethics complaint over his mayoral contributions and the publicity about the mayor's daughter working for him can be traced to rivals jealous of PGAL's success.

"The timing of that was real suspicious," he notes. "Why would somebody dig out that stuff and have it right at the time that the airport job and the civil courts job, which were two major things we were trying to get, were being decided?"

Linville says he will continue to use Espa in PGAL work. "The fact is there are not enough good quality minority firms to meet all the requirements of local government work," says Linville. "We use them all, and Espa is one."

 

To the suggestion that his business ties with Lee look questionable, the smooth operator pauses, then answers, "Umm, maybe."

But one thing is certain: They won't cost Jack any business.

In a controversial luncheon speech last spring, County Judge Robert Eckels called for reforms to force Harris County officials and employees to disclose their outside relationships with contractors who do work in the county. The judge told shocked listeners he felt "dirty" working within the lax system of ethics governing the county.

He says the Espa relationships are exactly what he was concerned about, even though he says Linville is "totally aboveboard" and the relationship with Lee is "perfectly legal under the current system of law."

"Until the system's changed, it will remain legal. In this case you've got an instance of over $1,000,000 that certainly leads to the appearance of impropriety," Eckels says. "And I believe it shouldn't take an article by the Houston Press to raise this issue. It ought to be something the public is aware of and you have full disclosure."

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim.fleck@houstonpress.com.


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